The central element to the portrait of John the Baptist in Gospel tradition is his association with Isaiah 40:3, which, in its original prophetic context, stands at the beginning of the second half of the book of Isaiah (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). It is generally understood to reflect a promise of restoration and return (from exile) for Judah. This is the message of comfort/consolation in verse 1, as well as the “good news” (rC@b^m=) in v. 9a (cf. the recent note on the background of the eu)aggel- word group). The message of the herald in vv. 9ff is preceded by two brief oracles (vv. 3-5, 6-8) which reference a voice (loq) that “cries/calls” out (arq)—the voice of a prophet uttering the word/message given to him by God. Luke’s account is the only one of the Gospels that applies this specific prophetic element to John (Lk 3:2b, cf. also 1:76). The original Hebrew of Isa 40:3, given in literal translation, reads:
“A voice (is) calling (out) in the wide open [i.e. remote/desert] (land): ‘Turn (your) face (to) the way/path of YHWH! Make straight in the (desert) plain a place (to walk) up for our God!'”
The verb hn`P* (p¹nâ), lit. “turn (your) face (to)”, often means “turn your attention to, give attention to”, in the sense of working at or preparing something. The noun Er#D# (derek) is typically translated “way” or “path”, but specifically means something trodden/trampled, i.e. where a person steps or walks. The parallel noun hL*s=m! (mislâ), from the verb lls, refers to a place that has been built or raised up—such as a ramp or staircase, and is often rendered as “highway”. The nouns rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) and hb*r*u& (±¦r¹»â) each refer to an open, remote area (i.e. desert, wilderness, pasture-land, etc), but with a slightly different nuance.
The Greek (LXX) translation is reasonably accurate, but interprets the Hebrew somewhat:
fwnh\ bow=nto$ e)n th=| e)rh/mw| e(toima/sate th\n o(do\n kuri/ou eu)qei/a$ poiei=te ta\$ tri/bou$ tou= qeou= h(mw=n
“(The) voice of (one) crying in the desolate (land): ‘(Make) ready the way of the Lord, make straight the broken (track)s of [i.e. for] our God!'”
Several of these differences resulted in making the verse more amenable for being applied to John the Baptist (and Jesus):
- The opening construction—”voice of (one) crying”—points more directly to a particular person or figure (i.e. John).
- The Greek word order allows the phrase “in the desert” to be associated with the voice crying (i.e., “voice crying in the desert”), rather than the location of the work (“make ready in the desert”).
- The conventional rendering of the Divine name YHWH (hwhy, Yahweh) with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) allowed Christians to interpret the passage as a reference to the coming of Jesus.
- Instead of the idea of building up a ramp or pathway over the rough ground, the Greek conveys more the sense of smoothing out or leveling the rough places on road, etc., which better suits the image of John’s ministry urging people to repent of their sins.
All three Synoptic Gospels follow the LXX, except for the substitution of au)tou= (“his”) in place of tou= qeou= h(mw=n (“of our God”), which may have been an intentional (Christian) modification; in any case, it helps to make the passage apply to Jesus, rather than God the Father (YHWH).
One may understand the early Christian use and application of Isa 40:3 three ways, or on three distinct levels:
- At the historical level—i.e. what John said about himself, or how he was viewed by people at the time
- In an eschatological or Messianic sense—John as the herald who prepares people for the coming of God (and His Judgment) at the end-time, and
- In relationship to Christ—as the forerunner who prepares people for the appearance of Jesus
It is easy to conflate these and to jump immediately to the specifically Christian (or Christological) interpretation. This, of course, would have been the understanding of the Gospel writers; however, I am not so certain that it properly explains how the association of John with Isa 40:3 came to be established in the Gospel tradition in the first place. This will be discussed further in the next note.